Review: VocalEssence ably enhances the choral carol canon By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press PUBLISHED: December 8, 2019 at 4:35 pm | UPDATED: December 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm Link to article can be found here. Philip Brunelle conducts the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and a chamber orchestra at Saturday evening’s first performance of the “Welcome Christmas” program. (Photo: Bruce Silcox) Big and intimate. Traditional and fresh. These are the paradoxes with which the singers of VocalEssence wrestle. While 143 voices unite when their two main choirs combine, they’re often tasked with drawing listeners into a place of quiet solemnity and contemplation. And, come December, the repertoire they sing evokes the comforts of Christmases past, but emphasizes premieres and seldom-heard works.Such is the case with this year’s “Welcome Christmas” program, which debuted at Apple Valley’s Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on Saturday evening. As for premieres, there were four of them, including the concert’s centerpiece, “Nordic Christmas,” Norwegian composer Kim Andre Arnesen’s adaptation of six carols from that part of the world. But the most memorable moments for me were the most intimate, when I felt enwrapped in complex yet comforting harmonies and the music summoned up the spirit of a gentle midnight snowfall.That’s the theme of Sigurd Lie’s “Snow,” which was beautifully interpreted, soprano Chloe Johnson gently caressing each syllable.Similarly soothing was Mitchell Southall’s “In Silent Night,” given a sumptuous rendition that affirmed the growing bond between the VocalEssence Chorus (its larger choir) and conductor G. Phillip Shoultz III, who has been virtually splitting leadership duties with founder Philip Brunelle for a few seasons now. Each year, VocalEssence asks composers to submit new carols to a contest, choosing two to be premiered at “Welcome Christmas.” This year’s winners were among the concert’s highlights. Former Cantus member Paul John Rudoi has created something fascinating with “The Orbit Carol,” a swirling, circular work that sent the 31-voice VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and violinist Roger Frisch (the retired associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra) seemingly into concentric orbits around one another. But the other winner, Travis Ramsey’s “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee” is among the most involving new carols I’ve encountered in recent years. Taking for its text the poetry of William Blake, it was a beautiful combination of richly textured vocal harmonies and Frisch’s equally arresting violin lines. As for Arnesen’s “Nordic Christmas,” it was also at its most powerful when at its quietest, as on “Now Shine a Thousand Candles Bright” and “Lovely is the Dark Blue Sky,” soprano Margaret Sabin tapping into the latter movement’s spirit of spare simplicity. But, over the course of the six-carol suite, I felt that Arnesen too often went for the predictability of tradition without taking it in any particularly interesting new direction. For a world premiere, it sounded overly familiar. The choice to include Susan LaBarr’s arrangement of “Iesus Anattonnia (Huron Carol)” in these concerts felt like a misstep, for it raised images of Christian conversions of indigenous people while its drum beats were too reminiscent of the cultural caricatures common in much of the last century. With conversations about conquest and oppression’s place in our country’s history on more lips than ever, performing this piece seemed tone deaf. But in its wake came some of the concert’s best examples of what magic can be conjured by lush layers of harmony, such as Jan Sandstrom’s transfixing arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” which stands as an ideal example of how an old piece can be taken apart and rearranged to reveal fresh insights and inspiration. Hewing closer to the original was David Evan Thomas’ take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” its beauty enhanced by the 10-member instrumental ensemble (excellent all evening), particularly the gently chiming tones of harpist Min Kim. If You Go Who: The VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers with conductors Philip Brunelle and G. Phillip Shoultz III What: “Welcome Christmas” When and where: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Plymouth Congregational Church, 1919 LaSalle Ave., Mpls.; 4 p.m. Sunday, Roseville Lutheran Church, 1215 W. Roselawn Ave., Roseville Tickets: $40-$20, available at 612-371-5656 or vocalessence.org Capsule: This mostly 21st-century collection of carols is best when absorbingly intimate.